Every country has its own version of a classic stew or its own form of comfort food, whether it is eaten on hot summer days or during the cold winter months.
The Tunisian cuisine was enriched throughout the centuries by the contributions of the people who came into the country. For example, the Jewish community’s impact is very significant as were the Berbers who brought couscous and mermez to Tunisia.
Mermez is a traditional Tunisian dish. Its particularity is its simplicity and its success with chickpeas and lots of onions. The meat is so tender and well impregnated with this compote.
What exactly is mermez? A hearty, filling chickpea stew of onions with meat usually beef or lamb. It’s a simple recipe to make. Even if the cooking process is a bit long, it’s really worth it! Chickpeas and meat are the basis of the recipe. Onions and garlic complete the ingredients and as often in the Tunisian culinary tradition, harissa, concentrated tomatoes, peppers and spices will raise the flavors to better warm you up!
Mermez is a dish that we like to rediscover in winter as lablabi (leblabi) another traditional Tunisian dish made from chickpeas. Partly because it is rich and can hold the long winter days.
As mentioned before, this dish can take a long time to cook if cooking on the stove top. The chickpeas have to be soaked at least 12 hours or overnight to allow them to bloom. If you cook dried chickpeas or beans without soaking them, they will come out too hard and dry even after hours of cooking, this I have tested. It is best and recommended that you use dried instead of canned due to the long cooking process. If you use canned beans, they will break down too fast before the lamb has time to finish cooking.
Lamb is the traditional meat used in mermez, although you can use beef as well. Boneless shoulder or leg, cut into bigger pieces, about 3 to 4 inches is best to use because, we want that meat to hold its dexterity while the chickpeas are cooking. Trim as much fat from it as you can, you can also have your butcher do this. If you cook it with the fat on, the fat will release too much oil and cause your stew to taste gamey. No one likes an oily stew!
Since this is a stew of mainly onions and chickpeas, a tremendous amount of sliced onions is required. Due to the long cooking process, you won’t have to worry about biting into huge amounts of onions, especially if you are making this dish for date night!
Take the time to caramelize your onions first, to the point of them becoming softened and releasing their sweetness. The sweetness from the caramelizing of the onions will help balance the tartness of the tomato paste.
Notice that spices are added later in the cooking process and no salt is added to the meat or the chickpeas. This is because the salt will cause the chickpeas to remain hard. The spices are added later on because we want the flavors of the harissa and the smoky flavor of the cumin to come through without it becoming lost in the long cooking process. Tunisians are known for their love of spicy food, so add as many peppers to your comfort of heat.
This recipe shows you the process of cooking in a pressure cooker. However, you can also cook this on the stove top, by browning the lamb first in some oil, then removing it from the pot, and caramelizing the onions and re-adding the lamb back into the pot with the chickpeas, tomato paste and harissa.
Cook on low heat for 2 hours until the chickpeas and lamb is tender, then add in the spices and cook until your gravy has thickened.
Another version is to cook it in your crockpot. Again brown and caramelize your meat and onions, add everything to the crockpot with enough liquid, set it on low and head out for your day. When you return and walk into your home, you will be greeted by the most heavenly smell!
Traditionally, this stew is served with a crusty bread like a Tunisian Italian bread.
- 3 lb lamb shoulder , boneless and cut into pieces
- 1 lb chickpeas
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons harissa
- 4 cloves garlic , pressed
- 3 onions , cut into strips
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- 2 green hot peppers (or more)
- Soak the chickpeas for 12 hours in cold water with baking soda.
- In a pressure cooker, add the olive oil and heat it over low heat.
- Add the onions and sauté for 3 minutes, stirring regularly.
- Add the meat and brown on all sides for a few minutes.
- Add the tomato paste and harissa and fry for a few minutes, stirring regularly.
- Add the chickpeas and mix well.
- Add enough boiling water to fill ¾ of the pressure cooker and cover (without locking) for 10 minutes, until boiling.
- Add the garlic and black pepper. Be careful, you should not add any salt at this point, or the chickpeas would remain hard.
- Lock the pressure cooker and cook for 30 minutes over medium heat.
- Remove the pressure cooker from the heat and open it. Test the tenderness of the chickpeas and the meat and extend the cooking for 10 minutes, with the pressure cooker locked, if necessary.
Return the pressure cooker to low heat and add the cumin and the paprika. Cook uncovered over medium heat for 5 minutes, stirring gently.
- Finally, add the green hot peppers and salt. Mix gently and cook covered for 10 minutes.
- Serve with Tunisian Italian bread.